Review: Baiwei

July 31, 2013

I find Chinatown incomprehensible. It’s an ever-shifting tangle of restaurants and takeaways and bars and brothels. It morphs and skews before your eyes. You can sit down in one restaurant, only to walk out of another one three blocks down, two years older and with a strange pain behind your eyes. That’s how it goes in Chinatown.

I can never remember which places I’ve been to, and thus which ones I liked (and, more importantly, which ones I hated). Going for a meal in Chinatown is like restaurant roulette; luck out and you can bag yourself one of the best meals in town, otherwise you’d be as well boiling your fist and eating it.

Baiwei opened at a good time. It serves Sichuan cuisine, the same as Hutong, the mega-restaurant half way up the Shard, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago (it was so-so). How great would it be if a little canteen-style place that looks like it’s held together with sellotape and dreams were better than the faceless glass monolith? (Baiwei is owned by the Bar Shu group, which has a few other places in Chinatown, but it’s no international conglomerate.) I was rooting for it; all it had to do was not be awful.

Never dream, Steve. Never dream.

A well-known restaurateur recently told a colleague of mine that most owners would far prefer a bad review to no review at all. Some restaurants will spend £50,000 on a refurb, he said, just to get half a dozen critics through the doors. This makes me feel better about what I’m about to write, because Baiwei isn’t half as good as it thinks it is.

Our table was up a rickety flight of steps, in a white, strip-lit room that seems designed to make everyone look like the painting in Dorian Gray’s attic. It gives the impression of being both very new and incredibly tired; Communist propaganda vistas are painted on the walls – in one a hardy farmer towers over a tiny fat-cat in a top hat – and it has fly-away tables and chairs that remind me of being at Sunday School. It’s about as atmospheric as an enema. This, by the way, is exactly how it should be – I don’t need mood lighting and faux-Eastern sculptures, just decent food.

They say you should never eat at a restaurant with pictures on the menu. At Baiwei, everything has pictures. Massive ones, some of which bear about as much resemblance to the finished product as people’s profile pictures do to their actual face.

Most of the dishes are counted as “small” – although this isn’t always the case – and you’re supposed to order a few to share.

The pot-sticker dumplings were solid enough – nice and chewy – but it went downhill quickly after that. The slivered pork in fermented sauce comes in a bowl the size of a teacup, but it’s still too much – it’s a thick, viscous, salty gloop, the consistency of a bolognese that’s been reduced down to its atomic components. It’s served with rubbery tofu wraps that look and taste like they came out of a packet.

I was looking forward to the deep-fried green beans with minced pork, because it was the best thing I ate at Hutong and I desperately wanted Baiwei to do it better. It didn’t – the beans didn’t have the same crispy, zinginess – although it was, relatively speaking, not bad (it was also one of the most expensive dishes, at £8.90).

The best effort was the aromatic cold meats, which the menu somewhat cryptically suggests “may include pig’s ear, duck’s tongue, pig’s tongue and ox tripe.” Using the word “may” suggests they’re just marinating whatever was left on the butcher’s floor that day, which is exactly what they are doing, but sometimes honesty isn’t the best policy. These leftovers are lovingly prepared, though, with frilly strings of deliciously spongy ox stomach and satisfyingly meaty pig’s ears.

The steamed lamb in roasted rice meal tasted of nothing, but meatier; a bit like belching the morning after a kebab, or the phantom pain of a severed limb.

The restaurant’s speciality is catfish in spicy sauce, which comes packed with chilies, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and whole cloves of garlic, all of which jostle loudly for your attention. It’s a variation of a Chinese dish that uses fish heads, and it’s almost outstanding. It’s served with tough pancakes that you’re supposed to mix into the sauce until they go soggy. The problem is the fish – nice in and of itself – comes coated in a layer of bubbly snot that tasted like batter that’s been left floating overnight in a puddle.

The experience was made worse by the fact I was having a week off the booze: like sex, Baiwei would probably be better after a few glasses of wine.

I wanted to like it, I really did. It looks and feels like a restaurant that might serve really excellent food – every now and then it even threatens to – but too often it falls short. Far short. I’d say I wouldn’t go back, but I’ll never remember where it is anyway.

First published in City A.M.